Three Set Pieces [Composition No. 62f] composition notes
Three Set Pieces has its origins in my on-going large-scale composition project Compilation IV. As part of my preparation for the larger work, early in 2002 I composed a series of 24 melodies which would form the thematic basis for both the main work and a series of satellite pieces; these Gruppen Modulor melodies were constructed based on theories of proportion and relationship developed by a range of thinkers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Le Corbusier, George Russell and Wassily Kandinsky. The ideas of these writers were put into practice both in terms of microstructure (the rhythmic subdivision of the main beat), macrostructure (tempo relationships between and within melodies), and subsequently the relationship between combined materials.
Three Set Pieces is the sixth of these satellite works, and was prepared for Paul Jackson and the Anglia Sinfonia in December 2003; it extracts from the larger score of the recording-studio-based Compilation IV a suite of pieces arranged for live performance, scored for 40-piece orchestra, including electronic keyboards and samplers. Why Set Pieces? Three reasons; firstly, although Compilation IV is a work built around and fundamentally concerned with performer improvisation, the score of 3SP contains no improvisation, and thus is set or fixed to a degree unusual for me. Also, this suite consists of the (theatrical) 'set pieces' - or compositional highlights - from the larger, more diffuse work. And finally, the fact that this performance is being undertaken by members of a University Music Department, some of whom may be receiving marks/credits for their contribution, lends another resonance to the idea of (examination) 'set pieces'!
Part 1: Gruppen Scale starts with a cosmic 'big bang' of melody, with almost all of the GM melodic material being presented simultaneously. The movement then explores various free counterpoints and harmolodic arrangements of melodies, structured around a series of tempo steps derived from Stockhausen's Gruppen. The proportions of these tempo steps reflect on a macro scale the individual intervals and beat subdivisions of the melodic writing, with the whole movement driven relentlessly by a motoric (but variable) semiquaver rhythm. (My thinking about how this material is allocated to the orchestra has been greatly influenced by the work of Gerald Barry.) There are 2 interludes embedded within this material; one is a premonition of the very different soundworld of Part 3, closely followed by a sample-based 'epiphany', where the live instruments are recycled as the raw material for similar music, but now enriched with 'melodies within melodies'. Conventional vertical harmony is completely eschewed in this movement, being replaced by a harmonic gravity generated by the combined effect of individual members of the melodic constellation; where similar versions of the same melody do run in parallel, their relationships derive from the harmolodic principles initiated in the work of Ornette Coleman.
Part 2: Lydian Panels combines melodic and harmonic ideas developed by George Russell with structural principles explored in Le Corbusier's 'panel exercise' from The Modulor. The restful lydian geometry of the result provides the suite with its 'slow movement'; although the use of very high piccolos (always a favourite of mine), may not seem that restful to some&ldots;
Part 3: Stockhausen Mancini Head returns to the more abruptly experimental investigations of much of my earlier work, and poses the question "what would it sound like if Henry Mancini had arranged the soundtrack for a Hollywood biopic of Karlheinz Stockhausen?". And then the second question "and what would that sound like played backwards?". These apparently casual and flippant questions actually conceal a huge amount of detailed work undertaken to get these ideas to work in a way which I enjoyed, but they do accurately sum up the basic principles of the piece. I combined a handful of 'melodies' extracted from the score of Gruppen with a selection of my own gruppen modulor material. These melodies were then collaged with a series of stock arrangement formulae, drawn mainly from Sounds and Scores, Mancini's excellent treatise on light/popular music arranging. In the first part of Stockhausen Mancini Head (the term 'head' is used here in one of its jazz contexts - i.e. the superimposition of new [modern] melodic material of pre-existing [traditional] harmonic & rhythmic forms) we encounter a jazzy march, a cha cha cha, a latin ballad and swing material.
There follows a second sampler 'epiphany' - now the 'melodies within melodies' and live material from Part 1's epiphany are combined and recycled as the raw material for a revisiting of Lydian Panels (generating melodies within melodies within melodies). Subsequently most of the material from the first half is played in retrograde; as part of this process I've also used some mechanical degradation processes to corrupt this information, but a lot of the material remains strikingly familiar (if different). The movement ends when it gets back(wards) to the beginning.
I'd like to take this opportunity of expressing my profoundest thanks to Paul Jackson and the Sinfonia for the dedication and enthusiasm they've shown in taking on the realisation of this piece. It's a complex and difficult score, with many technical problems - both musical and technological - but Paul has not baulked at my insistence on trying to push the envelope of what might be possible. (Well, not often, anyway&ldots;.!) The individual instrumental parts contain passages of great awkwardness and technical difficulty, and my congratulations go to all the players for having taken on such a challenge; I hope they enjoyed the experience.
© Simon H. Fell 2004
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